The Tournament


3.

Madame Jocasta Nu loved order. And she loved serenity. But she also loved a good, clean fight. Stern Archivist, wise Councilor, able diplomat she might be; but at her hip, discreetly obscured by the folds of her floor-length tunics and tabards, hung a gleaming lightsaber hilt, relic of former years when the formidable guardian of knowledge had herself been a formidable guardian of peace. She might be old, but the fire had by no means died form her spirit. On occasion, she allowed it to flourish into transient life.

She was among the first to show up in the senior upper level dojo for the conclusion of the Chakora Seva tournament that evening.

As the sun outside sank lower and lower on Coruscant's reticulated skyline, Jedi trickled by twos and threes, and the occasional dozen, into the spacious observation balconies and the cordoned-off benches alongside the salle's long walls. Three referee droids hovered dutifully near the high ceiling; an expectant murmur rose and fell like the susurration of a gentle ocean. Knights, Masters, eliminated Padawans, older initiates, a lucky group of young clan members headed by the irrepressible Ali Alaan, and some of the high Council were present. Jocasta slipped through the hushed throng and positioned herself in a corner near Qui Gon Jinn, who stood placidly to one side, arms folded over his chest and face composed in lines of detached calm. She noted that he was, once again, unaccompanied by his apprentice.

At the precise moment of sunset, Ki Adi Mundi struck a sonorous note on a small chime, bringing the hum of professional interest and amused expectation to a sudden halt. Across the dojo's wide space, Master Yoda tapped his gimer stick upon the floor.

"Let those who eliminated have not been, step forward," he rasped.

Agile, cunning Ren Skarlan and tall, imposing Ky Shinshee emerged form opposite ends of the room into the central space. They bowed to each other, a mark of respect. Qui Gon Jinn stirred slightly where he stood, but said nothing, his expression unreadable.

"There are only we two left, masters," Ren announced in her high, clear voice. Her headtails were bound back by a leather strap in the Nautolan style. Ren was as tall and strong as any human male, her saber skills undisputed.

"Three," another voice chimed in from above. And with no further explanantion, Obi Wan Kenobi dropped down from the observation balcony, vaulting lightly over the railing to land in a half crouch upon the dojo floor. He was claokless, and a training saber was grasped loosely in his right hand. The Force shimmered with playful challenge, bright sparks of eagerness invisibly cascading over the whole assembly.

"What?"

"You!"

A murmur and a rustling of cloaks swept around the room, churned the Force into confusion. Some of the younglings with Ali Alaan clapped enthusiastically, delighted by the frisson.

"I saw him in the Archives this morning!" a Padawan called from the back of the audience. "And the map room later!"

"He was with us earlier!" another added. "I thought he was eliminated!"

"He ate lunch with us!" Yosho Yu-mei exclaimed.

"You were helping Master Yoda when I saw you," Ren accused him, her wide black eyes blinking rapidly in shock and outrage.

"I saw you in the Room of a Thousand Fountains," Ky Shinshee growled. "Meditating. I left you alone out of respect. I could have taken you then and there!"

"I don't think so," Obi Wan countered, quietly.

"Cheater," Ky hissed. Or perhaps he only thought it. His lips did not move; but in an assembly such as this, the ignoble thought was plain to hear.

Qui Gon Jinn stirred again, his broad hands moving to rest on his belt, his weight shifting imperceptibly forward. Jocasta smiled to herself; she recognized an instinctive move into classic defensive guard position. Jinn was nothing if not protective of his student.

"Enough!" Yoda's command was a thundercrack of authority. Instantly every voice in the salle was silenced, every racing thought suspended. Ali Alaan dropped to one knee, hushing a startled child of four. "Public accusation of dishonesty, you make, Ky. Serious is such a statement."

The dark haired youth tore burning eyes away from his opponent and gazed stubbornly at Yoda. "I speak what is in all our hearts," he insisted. "Padawan Kenobi has no right to be here. All those here are witnesses."

"An explanation please, Obi Wan," Ki Adi Mundi suggested firmly.

The young Jedi bowed. "Yes, master. In the words of Chakora Seva, A forest hides among its trees; the air is still within the breeze; the sun seems many on the sea; though I am here, you don't see me."

Jocasta Nu drew in a sharp breath, earning her an equally sharp look from Qui Gon Jinn. What cheek – that was the selfsame passage the conniving Padawan asked her to translate earlier in the day.

"I enlisted in the ranks of competitors this morning before sunrise, my masters," Kenobi continued. "And I have been hiding all day long. In the open. I never once told anybody that I had been eliminated; if others assumed as much, or interpreted what I did say in such a manner, that was their own doing. I did not seek out other players, nor was I challenged in the course of the day. Hence, I have not been eliminated. And I am here now."

Qui Gon Jinn's lips curved very delicately into the shadow of a smile. His Force presence glowed with fierce pride. Jocasta raised an eyebrow in his direction, but his grey eyes were fixed firmly on his apprentice, the focal point of every gaze in the room. An unearthly and astounded silence filled the space. The only movement was that of Master Yoda's ears waggling in undisguised glee.

"Hhhmph," he snorted, a small impish smile beginning to crumple his wizened features.

Ren Skarlan shut her mouth with an audible click.

A whispering wave of startled reaction ran through the assembly; Jocasta sensed easily that most the Masters were impressed. Qui Gon's apprentice had indeed lived up to reputation, if not in quite the manner expected. The Padawans clearly felt swindled , though good manners kept them silent. The younglings in the room had fallen, unanimously, into utter hero worship.

"You can't do that," Ky Shinshee spat out, in a hoarse, guttural voice.

"I just did," Obi Wan corrected him, in dangerously velvet tones.

Master Yoda rapped his stick again. "Master Qui Gon," he called across the room. "Broken the rules of the tournament, has your Padawan?"

"No, master," the tall Jedi replied calmly. "Only bent them." His imperious gaze traveled over the gathering. None challenged his judgment, though some could not hide their exasperation. The old rebel was now leaving his mark on the younger generation, they feared.

"Agree, I do," Yoda declared. All argument ceased. The Grand Master's word was final. His greenish-gold eyes rested warmly on Obi Wan for a moment, then moved to encompass Ren Skarlan and Ky Shinshee. "Assumptions, you made. In your own minds, a hiding place you provided for him. Defeated your opponents, have you two; made his opponents his allies and dupes, he has. No rule has he broken, and only your pride has he damaged. Stay he will."

"Yes, master," the disgruntled pair intoned in unison, much subdued.

The three finalists withdrew to separate corners of the dojo, and stood expectant, waiting for a decision as to who would pair off with whom for the championship match.

"Hmmmm," Yoda mused, observing them from under half-closed eyelids. "Since bent the rules young Obi Wan has, bend them also will I." He pointed his stick at Ren and Ky. "Take him together you should. At once."

Amid shouts of laughter from the audience, three sabers flashed into vibrant life. Jocasta's dark eyes narrowed in mirth as she caught the fleeting expressions on Obi Wan Kenobi's face: blank surprise, outraged amusement, and then a ferocious battle grin. He was immediately on the defensive against two skilled and rather peeved opponents, and heedless of anything else. While his energy had been pent up all day, simmering and suppressed, Ky and Ren were tired from a day of stealth maneuvers and constant dueling. Nonetheless, the uneven odds of this fight made it an occasion to remember.

Ren and Ky's initial tandem attack was met in an blazing series of perfectly executed parries, followed by an explosive Force push that sent them both sprawling halfway across the room. Their recovery was instantaneous and perfectly coordinated, but by that time their target was on the move, saber dancing in a sphere of blue light, a moving fluidity that was nowhere and everywhere.

The spectators shifted and drew back against the walls as the duel erupted into a flurry of strikes and counterstrikes. Obi Wan was hard=pressed to avoid his two avid competitors; the resulting display of Ataru gymnastics had the youngest of the audience shrieking and clapping their hands. Ren Skarlan's headtails came unbound and fanned out gracefully as she pivoted and spun, driving against Kenobi as Ky came from behind, hammering down a shower of blows. Obi Wan twisted, leapt, rolled, backflipped his way out of the two-edged attack, narrowly avoiding each and every strike. He ducked beneath one of Ren's sweeping blows, blocked Ky's savage slash behind his back, and sprang away, almost crashing into Jocasta as his leap carried him to the edge of the dojo.

"Focus," she snapped at him, mindful that the training saber's hot blade was still powerful enough to singe her robe. Beside her, Qui Gon Jinn chuckled with enjoyment. His apprentice gathered himself and lunged forward again, meeting the next assault head on, blade howling as he carved a luminous shield around himself, blocking, evading, eluding, defending. Every strike was countered, foiled and foiled again. Ky Shinshee's lips curled in disgust, while Ren's opal eyes narrowed in concentration.

Jocatsa watched with more than academic interest. Even some of the seasoned warriors stood, eyes riveted upon the moving spectacle. Yoda watched impassively; Qui Gon Jinn with a careful and critical detachment, and Ali Alaan's clan with unmasked enthusiasm.

Ky Shinshee's outrage at the trickery perpetrated by his foe peaked into a fever; the Force smoldered around him, flickering with untamed energy. Ren Skarlan's attention wavered, her balance subtly upset by the shift in mood, and Obi Wan disarmed her in a blinding downward strike. Ky Shinshee seized the opportunity to attack from behind, his weapon's edge grazing along the other Padawan's back even as he somersaulted away.

"A hit!" Ky shouted, voice thick with satisfaction. "I win!"

But Ki Adi Mundi shook his tall ridged head. "We play by the traditional rules, not sparring protocol. You must disarm your opponent, cause him to yield, or land a killing blow. Continue."

Ren limped into the crowd of spectators, humiliated but graciously accepting her defeat. The remaining two Padawans prowled in a circle, two blades thrumming low in the scorched air.

"Charlatan," Ky muttered. "Your master has a worthy apprentice in you."

Their blades met in a conflagration of mutual outrage. The match increased in speed, in intensity, in skill, as both participants called on the Force to sustain them in the breathtaking storm of light and crashing sound. Ky Shinshee seemed to contract to a furious singularity, while his foe gradually relaxed, seeming almost to sink into a trance, teeth slightly bared in a faint smile, eyes glittering with a strange reverent joy, seeing nothing but the play of the glowing blades, seeing beyond them.

Ky charged, saber thrusting hungrily for his opponent's neck; Obi Wan flipped backward, avoiding the blow, his foot catching Ky in the arm as he turned. Off balance, Ky stepped sideways, swept straight in a savage attack; Obi Wan parried vertically, slammed Ky's blade to the side, twisted, attacked, blocked, lunged, pivoted, ducked, slashed high, low, swept in a circle, cut down, stepped into a bind.

They pressed against each other, weapons spitting harsh trails of light and sparks, knees almost touching as they strained to throw the other backward, faces taut with effort. Ky smiled.

And brought his right knee up into his foe's groin, felling him. His killing blow went wide as Obi Wan rolled gasping to one side. A long slash appeared in the floorboards. Ky swept down again; Obi Wan barely managed to bring his saber across his body. Ky cursed and fell upon him with his full weight; the sabers screamed as they slid against each other; the two Padawans grappled, Ky pressing the locked blades closer, and yet closer to his foe's face, until cruel sparks dribbled and leapt onto his skin, into his hair.

Qui Gon Jinn sucked in a breath, his tall frame stilled into a rigid tension. Jocasta leaned forward, eyes widening in shock at the brutal tactic.

Ky Shinshee flipped forwards, somersaulting heavily onto the floor under the impetus of a boot to his backside. Both Padawans slewed round, twisting like serpents , and snapped into action, weapons singing in discordant chorus as they re-engaged. They clashed, then fell apart a half-pace, blades sweeping behind them in twin arcs. Ky Shinshee gathered the Force about him like an electrical storm, brewing with power.

Obi Wan merely closed his eyes, features softening.

Ky attacked, the storm breaking with peerless fury; but his blistering assault shattered and broke against a wall of blue lightning. Two blades spun and flashed, frantic, unfettered light shadows spattering across ceiling and walls, howling sound rending the air, bright hot fear and joy blossoming wildly in the roaring, seething Force.

Ky's saber went spinning, like a startled bird, out of his hand and into the observation deck far above. Obi Wan ended with an elaborate flourish, the tip of his blade hovering above Ky's heart.

The defeated Padawan staggered backward, bowed awkwardly to his conqueror, his cheeks flushed with bitter splotches. Both contestants were damp with perspiration and breathing heavily.

"The competition is ended, the winner decided," Ki Adi Mundi announced. Applause rang from the balconies and the dojo floor. Qui Gon Jinn released a long breath, his shoulders visibly slackening in relief. The company gradually broke up and drifted off in its separate ways, Padawans rejoining masters, the younglings shuffling sleepily away behind Ali Alaan.

Jocasta Nu waited patiently until the crowd of eager congratulators had dispersed before she approached the tournament's winner. Qui Gon Jinn hovered behind him, one hand lightly resting on the Padawan's shoulder. Though both their expressions were restrained as behooved Jedi, there was still a lurking suggestion of wicked delight in either man's mien.

The Archivist bowed her silver-haired head to the young Padawan. "Well done," she remarked. "You are a snake in the grass, Padawan Kenobi."

He blinked, glanced inquisitively up at his mentor- clearly unsure whether this were a compliment or not- and then bowed. "Thank you, Madame Nu."

"Master Seva once said Welcome victory when it pays a visit, but bid it a fond farewell when it departs. Are you familiar with the quotation?"

The young Jedi frowned, gave a small and polite shake of the head. "Ah..no, I am not acquainted with that piece of wisdom," he replied.

"Well," Jocasta Nu smiled kindly at him, folding her hands into opposite sleeves and including Qui Gon Jinn in her most gracious smile, "Perhaps you should look it up next time you are studying for the Twi"lek language mastery exam."

Master Jinn's brows rose and his eyes turned to regard his student with piercing intelligence. The Padawan's mouth opened in speechless surprise, while his master's mouth thinned into a half-humorous, half-challenging line. Obi Wan colored violently, his expression perfectly matching that which had had graced his peers' faces earlier.

Jocasta bowed to the pair of them. "If you will excuse me," she said pertly. "I must return to my duties…and I am sure you two have much to discuss."

"Yes," Qui Gon Jinn decided. "I think a lecture is on order….on the proper and improper uses of treachery. Don't you agree, my exceedingly clever and very, very young Padawan?"

"Um..….yes, master."

Madame Nu was pleased to note that the tournament's champion was a model of humility, for the last words were delivered in tones of meek trepidation. With a satisfied tilt of her head and an upward quirk of her thin lips, the guardian of knowledge and serenity left the impending discussion in their capable hands and returned to her ancient and orderly realm.

After all, she too had read Master Seva's texts.